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Consequences: Profundity, Mistranslation and Crystallised Phrases

By Tom Anderson


Some years ago, when I was in the final stages of writing up my PhD thesis, I decided I needed a suitably profound-sounding quote for the title page. My research was in the field of supramolecular chemistry, in which small sub-unit molecules come together to make larger assemblies. Aware of the frequently-quoted aphorism ‘the whole is greater (or more) than the sum of its parts’, I decided this fit the bill. With such common phrases, it is frequently difficult to identify the originator; in particular, wits such as Winston Churchill get many phrases attributed to them, when they were merely quoting older (sometimes lost) sources.


However, in this case I found that the most common attribution is to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. In science it also always pays to be pompously long-winded in Latin or Greek, so I eagerly sought out the original Greek so I could quote it alongside the English. It was then that I discovered that the claimed attribution (from Aristotle’s Metaphysics) was part of a mere set of philosophical definitions, and could just as readily be interpreted as ‘(I define) the whole as being composed of its parts’. While the precise translation is debatable and the deeper meaning may really have been there, the experience stayed with me. Sometimes, we see profundity where none may exist (or not of the intended sort) thanks to poetic mistranslation. The consequences for our language, and ultimately history, are remarkable.

Some such mistranslations reach far back into history, as in this case, while others are of relatively recent stock. China is a frequent, suitably ‘exotic’ (from a Western perspective) victim of having quotations attributed to its culture which are invented from whole cloth—as in the alleged curse ‘May you live in interesting times’, which was probably made up by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain. However, mere invention or misattribution is not the subject of this article. Instead, consider the case of Richard Nixon’s famous visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972—which itself gave us the aphorism ‘only Nixon could go to China’, i.e. only someone with a proven track record of opposition to a power or ideology could persuade his supporters that things had changed and it was now time to make friends. During Nixon’s visit, an incident occurred which is frequently reported as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai stating, when asked to judge the outcome of the French Revolution (of 1789), that it was ‘too early to tell’. This is frequently quoted when suggesting that Chinese culture and politicians take a very long view of history, reflecting their homeland’s longevity. However, in fact Zhou was noncommittally commenting on the outcome of the French student upheavals of 1968. More than one generation of writers has found a profound meaning where no intended profundity existed.

An intended profundity can also be rendered incorrectly. French writer Victor Hugo once wrote On résiste à l’invasion des armées, on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées, which literally translated as ‘One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas’. Due to an early flawed translation, this entered American English as ‘One cannot resist an idea whose time has come’—also profound, and a related sentiment, but not the same one. Hugo clearly did not intend any sense that an idea belongs to a particular temporal period, and we can probably conclude from his political views that it is not a sentiment he would have agreed with.

Frontispiece to the King James' Bible, 1611

What of what many would call the most profound work of them all? The Bible, written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, has gone through many English translations over the years. The most iconic is arguably the King James Version (or Authorised Version), commissioned (as the name implies) by King James VI and I of Scotland and England (respectively). Although first printed in 1611, the version seen today actually dates from a 1769 revision. The KJV translation was certainly a remarkable project, taking in 47 scholars in six committees, deliberately representing a range of opinion from High Church Anglicans to Puritans. Mistranslations in earlier English Bibles were identified and new interpretations of the oldest original language texts were made.


There was also a push to ensure the Bible was rendered in commonplace language of the time—though, of course, what was straightforward English in the early seventeenth century may not be four hundred years later. Some deliberate archaicisms (even for the 1610s) were kept regardless, perhaps to imply a sense of ancient grandeur. The phrase ‘lo and behold’, often used sarcastically to reflect a commonplace consequence—‘he left his car unlocked, and, lo and behold, it was stolen’, is likely a reference to both of those grand words being rather overused in the KJV where they were unnecessary; the phrase is first recorded in the 18th century.

Despite this easily parodied style, the KJV remains greatly prized for its poetic command of language, to the point where an American movement insists it is still the only valid English translation of the Bible, for questionable reasons. More modern translations, such as the New International Version, can not only call on a greater depth and breadth of scholarship than King James had access to, but also benefit from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946-7. These mostly Hebrew texts provide ancient copies of what forms the Old Testament of the Bible (among other scripts); much to the surprise of many at the time, the forms that had come down over two thousand years proved to deviate very little from these, but some small ambiguities were identified (or cleared up).


The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea scrolls. Hebrew transcription included. Photograph: the Israel Antiquities Authority 1993; photographer not named.

Most of the KJV’s outright errors were in the Old Testament (James had had fewer Hebrew rather than Greek scholars) but even these were rather small. More often, subtleties and shades of meaning in the original text were revealed, and newer and more accurate English translations became viable. Nonetheless, though translations like the NIV better reflect the original intent of the text, they often frequently fail to live up to the English poetry of the KJV. For example, take one of the most famous Biblical quotations, from Psalm 23:

KJV: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

NIV: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

This example also reveals that the KJV uses the old T/V distinction in English, which has now died off everywhere in the English-speaking world except Yorkshire and its neighbours. Because of its association with the KJV and other old text, some modern English-speakers tend to associate thou with formality, when in fact it is the informal equivalent of formal you. Note that the KJV uses thou to refer to God in the quote above, reflecting a personal relationship. It is interesting to note that Canadian flowchart memes regularly circulate on social media mocking English-speaking Canadians’ inability to understand what they regard as the arbitrariness of tu vs vous in French (equivalent to thou vs you). By contrast, the aforementioned minority of English-speakers in the North of England who still use thou and thee (albeit rendered today as tha and thi) find it entirely intuitive.

The title page of the First Folio of William Shakespeare's plays

The KJV Bible is one of the three biggest sources of English aphorisms; the other two are the Book of Common Prayer (itself quoting the Bible, of course) and the fictional works of William Shakespeare—it is interesting to note that these texts all date from the same era of the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. The omnipresence of these quotes in the language is reflected by the fact that many people will unconsciously use them without knowing their provenance. Every singer who has sung of a broken heart (Psalm 34:18), every political commentator who has spoken of the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14), everyone trying to stand up after sinking an armchair who complains that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41) is quoting or paraphrasing the King James Bible. So is anyone referring to the apple of their eye, casting pearls before swine, the land of Nod, holier-than-thou, their heart’s desire, the forbidden fruit, a fall from grace, by the skin of their teeth, and many, many more.

The NIV and other newer translations sometimes tries to preserve these phrases as they have entered the English language. However, there are some cases where a meaning was read into the original text which may not have been intended. For example, every British child whose school has put on a production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (based on Genesis chapters 35 to 47) knows that Jacob gave his son Joseph a coat of many colours. This is the KJV translation, yet the NIV prefers merely an ornate coat, noting that the exact translation of the Hebrew phrase ketonet passim is uncertain and debated. An entire cultural phenomenon is based on one particular, debated translation of a single phrase in holy writ.

The aforementioned Book of Common Prayer has given many phrases to English in its own right, albeit often based on Biblical derivatives. The Book’s version of the Apostle’s Creed gave us the phrase the quick and the dead (usually translated today as the more prosaic the living and the dead, preserving an archaic meaning of ‘quick’ which also appears in cut to the quick). The phrase sudden death comes from the Litany in the Book. The most iconic English phrases associated with marriage and funerals comes from the Book. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust (often only the latter two parts are quoted) is derived from Adam’s condemnation by God in Genesis 3:19 – “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”. Note this is also the source of another English aphorism, the sweat of one’s brow, which has become phrased differently—and it is this different phrasing which is incorporated into the NIV.


Famous color photograph of the "Trinity" shot, the first nuclear test explosion

Nor is Christianity unique in crystallising phrases in the English language based on older translations. On witnessing the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer ensured that one particular translation of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (chapter XI) would forever be the one quoted in English: ‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one…I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. Oppenheimer was working from a translation published in 1944, and some modern scholars would argue that the line is better translated ‘I am become Time, the destroyer of worlds’. This even extends to titles. The Chinese classic The Water Margin has a number of possible renderings of its title into English, but the popularity in Britain of a 1970s dubbed Japanese adaptation of that name means it is the one it will likely forever have. Its fellow Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ English name preserves an archaic sense of the word ‘Romance’, but more recent adaptations attempting to render it as simply Three Kingdoms run the risk of losing recognisability.

In our increasingly interconnected world, with automated (but flawed) translation becoming increasingly common, what new flawed or time-specific interpretations of the language will become frozen and preserved in the aphorisms of English—or indeed the reverse? Only time will tell—itself a phrase whose antecedents are debated, because of course they are!


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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth